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Backpacker Magazine – May 2002

I Saw the Light: Jon Dorn's Ultralight Conversion

Going ultralight may be the ultimate get-out-quick scheme: It took me all of 60 minutes to shop and pack for a 5-day hike and all of 10 minutes to pitch or pack up my simple camp.

by: Jonathan Dorn

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(Photo by Steve Howe)
(Photo by Steve Howe)

Ultralight 2.0
Help Jon fill his pack for an upcoming 2009 ultralight adventure.

Yea, though I walked through the valley with a heavy pack on my shoulders, I did not crumble. My boots and hiking staff supported me. My topo led me to green meadows where I pitched my tent among the mountains and wild animals. But then I went hiking with an ultralight pack, and it was better. I went faster, farther, and didn't get any blisters. Here is the true story of one man's conversion.

Last fall, we invited readers to participate in Backpacker's first Challenge The Editor event. The experiment: Send diehard overpacker Jonathan Dorn on a weeklong hike toting ultralight gear selected by our readers. Almost 4,000 of you voted at, assembling a load weighing only 19 pounds 8.5 ounces (see "Jon's Gear List"). More concerned about his meager food allowance than your refusal to let him carry a change of undies, Jon packed up his gear–it didn't take long–and headed for California.

A 10-ounce poncho was a poor choice for a place like this. California's Lost Coast is notorious for its fierce winter storms, yet here I was bending into the teeth of a late November gale without proper raingear. I was wet, I was cold, and it was only the second day of our trip.

Since breaking camp that morning, we'd been hiking south along a crumbling coastline as 30 to 40 mph gusts flung sand, sea spray, and sheets of rain against us. Water ran in rivulets down the length my body, having blown between the buttoned sides, up the nonexistent sleeves, and under the wildly flapping skirt of my poncho. Only a belt fashioned from scavenged rope kept it from blowing away entirely.

Then, to add indignity to discomfort, a fist-size rock tumbled from the cliff beside me, skipping twice off the rubble of a previous landslide before bouncing up and hitting me in the butt.

That night, my left cheek still sore from the cursed rock, I attempted to dry three layers of rain-soaked clothing by wearing them inside my down sleeping bag. Another bad choice by a guy who should know better. The feathers absorbed the moisture, and the bag almost instantly went limp. Around 3 a.m., shivering and sneezing, I began to wonder what "ultralight" really meant. Light on fun, perhaps. Light on comfort and convenience, too. Clearly light on common sense.

Funny how a warm, sunny morning can change your perspective. I didn't notice what time the rain stopped, but I felt warmth spreading through my body as the sun burned through a light dawn mist. Within a few hours, my clothes and bag were dry, my belly was full, and all was right with the world. I even dived into the surf, which had calmed from the previous day's raging boil.

The swim felt like a baptism. I'd started this hike a skeptic, full of doubt regarding the ultralight gospel. The storm had only intensified my worries. But sun and surf washed them away, and I emerged from the salty waves a different man.

Blue skies and long stretches of beach walking quickly revealed the benefits of hiking light. On the wide, sandy flats, I walked faster and more steadily than did my heavily laden partners. Watching them plod along was like watching a 90-year-old man hobble to the restroom. There was the stooped posture, the neck bent and eyes cast down, the unsteady, shuffling stride, and the pained expression.

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